This Mexican Scientist Went From Selling Tamales on the Street to Developing Lasers at Harvard

Lead Photo: Short rib tamales with tomatillo sauce and queso fresco by Chef Susie Jimenez & Ibrahim Sanz from Spice It Up and Haven Riverfront. Photo by Itzel Alejandra for Remezcla
Short rib tamales with tomatillo sauce and queso fresco by Chef Susie Jimenez & Ibrahim Sanz from Spice It Up and Haven Riverfront. Photo by Itzel Alejandra for Remezcla
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Juan Pablo Padilla Martínez knew he didn’t want to sell tamales all his life. The tiring, monotonous daily routine he had carried out with his mother and six brothers since childhood had kept the family economically afloat – and even helped pay for his studies – but Juan Pablo dreamt of something more fulfilling.

His father had been a school teacher until a tragic car accident took his life, and lacking an economic lifeline, Juan Pablo’s mother quickly mobilized her children to keep the household afloat. Juan Pablo was barely an infant at the time, but soon he was waking up at 5 a.m. to prep a humble tamal stand that would expand to two on the weekends in the busy center of Huamantla, in the state of Tlaxcala.

By high school, the hardworking teen was dreaming of a future in medicine, and in his senior year he made the treck to the nearby Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla to take the entrance exam. But an unexpected twist of fate dashed his dreams of med school and ultimately set him on a path that culminated in a PhD in Biomedicine and a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, where he is developing lasers with the capacity destroy kidney stones.

The inciting incident was, as Juan Pablo recalls it, a miscalculation in travel time that led to him arriving late to the exam. He still had enough time to get a satisfactory grade, but it wasn’t enough to land him in the university’s med school. Ever the optimist, Juan Pablo opted for a major in Applied Physics, thinking he would simply take the test again after his first year and make his way back to medicine.

But an eye-opening encounter with the simple, real-world applications of physics (“Why is the sky blue?”) together with a few inspiring professors led the budding scientist to stay the course, and he eventually found his niche at the intersection of physics and medicine. A Bachelor’s degree eventually led to a Master’s from Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE), followed by a Doctorate from the same institution.

Since graduating, Juan Pablo has gone back to his roots, sharing his passion for the sciences with curious school children while carrying out high level research and development at Harvard Medical School’s Wellmen Center for Photomedicine. His efforts have been recognized by the International Society for Optics and Photonics, which bestowed him with a gold medal in the the 2010 Optics Outreach Olympics.

In the end, the humble ex-tamalero from a small town in Tlaxcala is a firm believer in the potential of the Mexican people, and invites his countrymen to hold the same belief in themselves. “We Mexicans aren’t behind, we just a little more support,” he told CONACYT. “When I started a term at the University of California, Riverside I had the same academic level as a doctoral candidate from any other university in the world. And now that I’m at Harvard, I see that Mexicans have an extremely high academic level.”